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Rotterdam 2016. First Steps

The International Film Festival Rotterdam re-configures itself…and we begin our coverage.
 Ears, Nose and Throat. Courtesy KJE; Trilobite-Arts DAC; Picture Palace Pictures
I've arrived in the Dutch city of Rotterdam after a one year absence—flummoxed several editions in a row by the sprawling but often undistinguishable festival program of international cinema, I decided to try the Berlin film festival instead in 2015. But I've been lured back to the IFFR, as the Rotterdam film festival is abbreviated, for the favorite old reasons: the promise of a fabulously congenial and casual atmosphere of cinema discovery and discussion, extensive retrospective programs, and a promising showing of terrific avant-garde work, some of it projected on film. After attending Locarno for the first time last year in the summer, I have newly kindled hopes for this other European festival, an expansive wintertime festivity once so renowned for premiering adventurous new cinema.
You may note I did not mention the festival's Tiger competition, what it is perhaps most known for in international film culture, but in the past I've found this section, despite its admirable restriction of only showing first and second feature films, often disappointingly unremarkable. (Ask a well-watched cinephile to name a great Tiger winner in the last several years and you may be met with a confused look.) The 2016 version of the festival, with its new director in charge, has made a number of changes to the organization of the event, the most prominent of which in fact is a paring of the number of competitors for the Tiger down to eight, so that the festival premieres just one competing film a day. This tighter focus, combined with the greater allowance and ease of scheduling for both audiences and press & industry folk (in an event featuring over a hundred films), is appreciated and will no doubt ensure more people see the competing films by emerging filmmakers. Whether those films are worthy of such attention is another question; the first competitor I caught, the feature debut of Indonesia-born Dutch installation artist Fiona Tan, worrisomely fell squarely into that category of over-conceived, under-executed "festival film."
There are a few other new sections, some removed ones, others renamed; but to be honest I've never understood to whom such section delineations are important at such a sprawling festival as this. For myself, at most festivals I look for names of filmmakers whose work I love or find interesting, gravitate towards certain preferred genres and countries, skim catalog notes for intriguing aspects that may fall out of this purview, and keep an ear open for recommendations, especially from well-traveled European critics and programmers. Whether any given film is in the Perspectives, Bright Future or Voices section matters not to me; and I wonder for whom such organization helps. With such a big program, the curation of the festival overall is nearly impossible to get a sense of, and the few sections with more pointed missions, such as the centerpiece competition and, of equal importance in theory and great importance in fact, the dedicated retrospectives inherently conduct the feeling of a sensibility and provoke with the ideas of and behind their choices. That in its semi-rebooted state the festival has elected to show new films by Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella and Japanese radical Masao Adachi, and amplify these new works within the context, historical and political, of their past (including an expansive series on “La Escuela de Barcelona,” which included Portabella in the 1960s and 1970s), suggests a potent and crucial support for cinema as a force for controversial vision, documentation, critique and social change.
How such a vision will translate to the new work premiering at the festival will be seen in the coming days. Having only recently arrived, I've caught few films, but two were exceptional. Ears, Nose and Throat, by the American director Kevin Jerome Everson, is precisely the kind of terse, evocative and reality-founded filmmaking that continues, in a different context and method, the Portabella-Adachi strand of cinema. This short documentary of a young African American woman is made of two parts—the titular doctor's visit, which finds she has a malformed vocal cord which will cause her to grow hoarser as time passes; and the woman's oral history of witnessing a shooting on her block—interwoven together in image and sound. This clean portraiture, shot with intimate textures regardless of the camera's distance, and shown with a prologue presumably sketching the location of the woman's house, offers a lucid approach to an idea of considerable force. Everson both stretches and collapses the distance between the human body as a site for perception and the body as a physical thing that can be damaged. The context for this expansion and contraction of experiences is crucial, as its sadly quotidian example of this woman and what she saw illustrates the position of African Americans in the United States as both victims of violence and/or those who see are receptors of violence experiences. Hearing-test sonic beeps bookend the film, and the speakers the left and right effects come out of in the theatre differ from where the woman indicates they are coming from in Everson's footage of her at the doctor's. It is a fictionalized finale, but a pointed one: a woman whose experience is to hear the opposite of that which we do, and who the more she talks the less she is able to say.
Lejos de los árboles
The first film showing in the retrospective from the 1960s and 70s school of Barcelona was Jacinto Esteva Grewe’s Lejos de los árboles (1972), part of a series of films that curator Olaf Möller described as "the unofficial new cinema” of Spain, with Grewe as "one of its founders and main theoretician.” Ending his introduction, “now I’’ll let you go to cruel, wonderful Spain,” this feature documentary followed an untranslated short about Spanish immigration, and indeed with Lejos de los árboles we could see why people would want to leave. A survey of Catalonian customs and rituals existing in the final decade of the Franco dictatorship, Grewe reveals the melding of Christianity and superstition (flagellants, possessions, at times resembling Antonioni’s under known 1949 short Superstitions), masculine ideals (bull fighting), conventions of femininity (a young nun’s astounding induction, an elderly nun’s funeral), and various remnants and flourishes of local celebration and carnival. A conflicted mixture of ethnographic reportage, vague patronizing attitude, and manifold subtle (and unsubtle) national critique, Grewe’s film exhibits wonder at the Catalonian character—but at a distance. A joyful and creative expression mixes thoroughly with repression, bloodshed, provincialism and twisted traditions: we seen Catalonia as both resistant to Franco’s Spain and perhaps a very pure expression of the worst side of “national character.”
The natural awkwardness and unevenness of Lejos de los árboles bodes well for Rotterdam’s Barcelona retrospective and the festival in general: a desire to discover and expose, but at conflict with itself and its subject. Such tensions are what the best of cinema thrives on.

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